Ever since I have started studying theology, I have had quite a few interesting conversations with different people. I am studying in a secular, “liberal” university with believers and non-believers from different backgrounds and different insights into who God is. Some of the conversations I have appreciated the most were with atheists, people who deny, for a number of reasons, the existence of the God I love. You see, I am a Christian, but my favorite philosopher (if I may not call him a theologian) is Friedrich Nietzsche, who proclaimed that God was dead. I am very interested in the reasons why people would not believe, and to me, understanding honest atheism helps me understand both God and men, which I believe is what theology is all about.
Theology is the study of the divine, the transcendent, the metaphysical. It is basically philosophy but focused on religious thinking, and it demands knowledge of history, sociology, and even art. It deals with the grand human questions of who and what is God, what is He/She/It doing, and, consequently, who and what is humankind — you and I — and what should we be doing with our lives. Purpose. Meaning. Theology discusses these questions using our experience (ordinary and mystic, along with scientific knowledge) alongside with revelation (such as the scriptures or tradition) and reason (formal logic, philosophy).
It demands critical thinking, specially self-criticism. For example, when Jesus called God his “Father” in first century Judea, he most likely had in mind something different than my personal view of “father“, since my experience with my dad was far from good (for most of my conscious life I was raised by a single mom). By knowing what were the roles of a father in Jesus’ time, I can understand Jesus’ relationship to God much better than when I think of my personal father, thus we end up studying a lot of history.
What can a believer learn from unbelievers? Like you, I am on my journey myself. I have found God, yet He is unattainable: both his presence and his absence are almost tangible in my life. The more I define him, the more he escapes my definitions. My own theology has been reconstructed over and over again, and some days I feel that I walk a thin line between orthodox and heretic. Yet I want to press forward, for two reasons: Truth, and Love. Truth because I want to know how things actually are, I mean, I will never believe the bible is true “because the bible says so“, to me that is just dumb. If truth is true it has to be true, everywhere, not just in a book. Love, because in understanding God I understand Man, and in understanding Man I understand God. In understanding God and Man, I understand my neighbor and I.
When an atheist says he does not believe in God, to what is he referring? When I say I believe in God, what am I referring to? We can speak of classical definitions such as omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being, yet I have found that historical Christianity and religion in general escapes that definition. Why should the conjectures of a philosopher trample over the religious experience and accounts of thousands of years?
Our concept of God is our concept of Ultimate Reality. It shapes, and is shaped, by the way we see everything around us. When you deny or affirm something about God, that has consequences with how you see reality. Let us say you believe in a God of relentless justice and no mercy, or even, an impersonal God that is just a force of justice in the universe. Suddenly you find yourself believing that everyone has what they deserve. Think of Karma, for example, and the castes system in some forms of Hinduism: if you are born poor and miserable, most likely it is because you were someone bad in a previous life, and you have what you deserve. There is no need to fight for a justice that is already there. Think, on the other hand, that God is all-forgiving… I bet you cannot. I mean, think of Hitler, Stalin, and the worst criminals in the world dancing in heaven together with your grandmother. Kind of hard to do, right? That would not be good, and we cannot stand the thought of an evil God. It may be easy if you are just a philosopher or theologian sitting on an ivory tower or with your comfortable Mac at Starbucks, but once you touch real life and talk to real people with real struggles, suddenly all that high thinking becomes alive. Evil and suffering are no longer just factors in an argument, they are real. You also realize that people live according to what they believe, and you play a part into what they believe: you can use that power to manipulate, or you can honestly search for truth even at the expense of your own reputation, or life.
The reasons why people believe, disbelieve, or even want to believe, often speak of what is most important to them. Is it our origin and our sense of purpose? Is it the questions of good and evil, and our sense of justice? Is it the (un)certainty of interpreting different Scriptures, and our sense of security? Often we are just not sure if we can trust God given what we see from the way history, or our lives, has gone off. These senses of purpose, justice, security, pride and hope are all reasons for belief and disbelief: they unite us as the human family, and it is a fascinating family.
Mindful belief is a scary thing, because once you start believing with an honest mind and heart, seeking for what is true, you stop believing in a bunch of untrue things. I like to think of myself as an un-superstitious believer, and I find myself saying “I do not believe that” to a number of religious statements. I am, in a way, also an unbeliever.